Dummies’ guide to understanding smartphone specs

So you’re in the market to buy a new smartphone, and you find yourself with a plethora of choices from all sorts of different manufacturers, each one hurtling a maelstrom of numbers and digits in your face. This is a guide to teach you all about those numbers, and what they do and do not tell you.

The Processor

The Snapdragon 801
The Snapdragon 801

The processor is the powerhouse of your phone, and is typically manufactured by Qualcomm or Mediatek. You’ll see things like “Qualcomm Snapdragon 810” or “Snapdragon 615”. Generally, the higher the number, the more advanced the processor. Qualcomm’s naming scheme is such that the first digit represents the family of processors: 8/6/4/2. The higher it is, the higher tier the processor is. The digits behind this first digit are only useful for comparing within a tier. So for instance, a Snapdragon 810 is supposed to be better than the 801. Right now the highest tier is the 810, but Qualcomm will be releasing the 820 soon. Mediatek too, have a similar naming scheme but with four digits instead.

More often than not, the processor is referred to as an “SoC”, which stands for “System on Chip”. This is because the processor, or more accurately SoC, is not just the CPU as you see in your computer. It actually includes the GPU (graphics processing unit), various radios (like 4G, Bluetooth, GPS) and other processing engines that are all separated in a standard PC.

Other than the name of the processor you’ll see things like “2.2 GHz Octa-core”. “GHz” refers to the clock speed of the processor – how many operations it can carry out per second. Once again, the higher it is, the faster the processor. The higher the number of cores, the better the processor is at multitasking, i.e. having multiple apps open at the same time. Note that cores don’t tell how fast the processor is. Something like the iPhone 6s may have only a dual core processor, but it beats many quad, hexa, or even octa-core processors in terms of single core performance.

It is worth noting that these numbers might not reflect real life performance. iPhones have been notoriously clocked at low speeds with little cores but outperform many Android devices. This is because the hardware-software optimisation also plays a key role in performance.

64-bit and 32-bit?

32 bit vs 64 bit

You might have noticed that some of the newer processors are labelled “64-bit”. Sooner or later all new phones will come with 64-bit processors as apps start to tailor to 64-bit. You might hear some people saying that it isn’t much of a big deal in terms of performance, but 64-bit actually does bump up the performance quite a bit, even when running 32-bit apps. If you’re looking for a phone that’s going to last you more than a couple of years, you might want to get a more future proof phone with a 64-bit processor.

RAM and Storage

Samsung was the first to develop 8 GB LPDDR4 mobile RAM
Samsung was the first to develop 8 GB LPDDR4 mobile RAM

You might be confused when a phone’s storage is labelled something like 2 GB/32 GB. This means that it has 2 GB of RAM (also known simply as memory) and 32 GB of storage. RAM refers to Random Access Memories and in layman terms it just means that the more RAM you have, the more multitasking you can do. For a phone with 1 GB RAM, when playing some music, doing GPS navigation, and then opening a game, there might not be enough RAM for the phone to handle all of that at once. So your music might stop playing or your game might have to reload if you switch away and switch back to it again.

Storage, on the other hand refers to the amount of stuff that you can store in your phone (music, photos, videos, apps, etc.) I would typically recommend getting at least 32 GB of internal storage. Some phones allow you to bump up the storage by using an external MicroSD card which you can purchase separately.

Camera

Z1 Camera

The bottom line is that more megapixels doesn’t mean a better camera. Something like the HTC One M9 has 20MP but the image quality is abysmal. The iPhone has had an 8MP camera from the 4s to the 6 but that does not mean that the camera on the 4s is just as good as the one on the 6. There’s a whole lot more to cameras other than the megapixel count. The most important part is the sensor. Typically Sony sensors are used because they’re widely regarded as good. Even Apple uses Sony sensors. Then of course there’s the post-processing involved after taking a picture (software stuff). So really, there isn’t much you can tell from a camera just by looking at the specs on paper. I highly urge you to read reviews of the phone’s camera before purchasing it.

Display

Display

The higher the resolution, the sharper the display. Right now 1080p is the standard for smartphones, though they go up to 1440p (i.e. “QHD” or “2K”) and even 4K in the new Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. I’d gladly settle for 1080p, honestly. Anything above 327ppi (pixels per inch) in pixel density is good supposedly good enough such that the human eye cannot discern individual pixels anymore.

There are mainly 2 kinds of displays used in majority of smartphones – IPS LCDs and AMOLEDs. Samsung uses AMOLED for all their phones, and more recently the Nexus 6P has used it as well. AMOLEDs offer higher contrast and punchier colours and deep blacks, while LCDs offer higher brightness and more natural colours. It really depends on your personal preference.

Battery

You’ll see stuff like “3000mAh battery”. The number indicates the maximum battery capacity of the unit, measured in milliampere hours. Once again, the higher the number, supposedly the better. But the numbers do not translate to real life battery life because of other factors such as the display, standby time and software optimisation. This is another area where it is imperative to read reviews of the phone before pulling the trigger.

That’s pretty much it

Personally, that’s all I look for in a smartphone. You’ll notice that the numbers only give you an idea of how the smartphone should perform in theory, but then from my experience real world performance often differs a lot. As for the iPhone, the spec sheet literally means nothing. Always check out reviews online before deciding to buy a smartphone.

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